Mention Ernie Els, and people who should know better tend to
forget that golf is hard. In the sport's shorthand hype, Els is
the guy who has everything-youth, strength, touch, technique,
nerve and his name on the U.S. Open trophy. He has even learned
to look at leader boards. Of course he's a world-beater.
The trouble with Els is that he keeps providing grist for that
mill. He did it when he won the Open at Oakmont last June at the
age of 24. He did it at the end of last year when he won the
World Match Play, the Sarazen World Open Championship and the
Johnnie Walker World Championship. The fact is, he does it
almost anytime his fluid, seemingly effortless swing is on
Els did it again on Sunday in Irving, Texas, at the Byron Nelson
Classic, winning by three strokes over Robin Freeman, Mike
Heinen and D.A. Weibring on the strength of a second-round
61--the lowest score on the PGA Tour this year--and a
door-slamming finish of four birdies over the last six holes.
That last bit of heroics came after Els had shown that golf is
indeed hard and that he is human. Having begun the fourth round
with a three-stroke lead, Els found himself one behind after 11
holes and looking down the barrel of an 18-foot par putt to keep
from dropping another stroke. The round had changed from a
formality into a street fight, but that's precisely when Els, a
6'3", 210-pound native of South Africa, once again demonstrated
that while he may play pretty, he knows how to win ugly.
May 21, 1995
Just as he did after opening bogey, triple bogey in his 18-hole
playoff against Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie at last
year's Open, Els responded by setting his disappointment and
anger aside and performing. Applying a lesson from Oakmont,
where he nearly blew the championship by not knowing where he
stood on the 72nd tee, he looked at the leader board. Seeing he
was one behind Heinen, he honed in on the task at hand.
"I just tried to knuckle down, and I really wanted to hit a good
putt," Els said afterward in the clipped accent of an Afrikaans
speaker who didn't learn English until he was 10. "When I made
it, I felt like maybe something's going to happen now."
Something did. Els followed his critical par saver by holing a
30-foot putt for a birdie on the next hole and then a
five-footer for another on the hole after that. By the time Els
had jammed in an emphatic final birdie on the 18th for a closing
68, he had set a tournament record of 17-under-par 263 and
earned his first official victory in the U.S. since joining the
PGA Tour last August. With his 15th win worldwide, Els moved
past Bernhard Langer and into fourth place on the Sony Ranking,
behind Nick Price, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo.
Els knows there is more hype in the offing. He tends to play his
best in the kind of 100[degree] heat that hung in the air in Irving
last week. His next three tournaments are this week's Buick
Classic, the Colonial and the Memorial, and with the weather
warming up he figures to be in the hunt. If he wins again or
even plays well, he will go to the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills
not only as the defending champion but also as the focus of
Everyone who has come into contact with Els, from Arnold Palmer
to Jack Nicklaus to countryman Gary Player, has projected
greatness for him. With each victory, superlatives are becoming
consensus. "He doesn't do anything wrong," said Freeman after
playing with Els on Sunday. Added Weibring, "What's amazing is
that nothing in his game stands out from the rest. Every area is
Although he appreciates the praise, Els tries to head off such
talk. "I don't really try to listen to what people say about
me," he says. "I don't think my game's quite there yet. It's a
funny game, you know. When you win a tournament, you feel like
you can take on anybody. But just a couple of weeks ago, I was
Indeed, after winning two events in South Africa at the
beginning of the year, Els hit a flat spot when he embarked on
his American schedule in March. His best finish on the Tour's
Florida swing was a 17th at Doral, and he bombed at the Masters.
A logical favorite at Augusta because of his length and touch,
Els was off his game and made matters worse by trying too hard.
He shot 72-75 and missed the cut.
Although he tied for seventh at Hilton Head the following week,
Els had lost both confidence and patience and had gotten away
from the cool temperament that veterans believe is his most
valuable attribute. Rather than follow his original Tour
schedule, Els and his girlfriend, Liezl Wehmeyer, left their
temporary digs in Orlando, where Els is building a house, and
spent three weeks at his beachfront home north of Capetown. They
passed most of their time fishing and having barbecues with
friends. Els played golf only four times. "I think it really
relaxed me and made me want to play well again," says Els, who
returned to the States only three days before the start of the
Nelson. "And when you have that desire to play well, you really
dig a little deeper."
After opening with a one-under 69 on the TPC at Las Colinas, Els
went very deep last Friday at Cottonwood Valley, another par-70
with driving areas wide enough to put a big hitter into a
comfort zone. Having played the first nine in three-under-par
31, Els dropped six birdies on the back side, closing with a
35-footer on the 18th. The 61 tied him for the lead with Freeman
and confirmed that his instinct to take time off had been right.
On Saturday at the TPC, Els scored a ho-hum 65 in which his
putting was again superb. Leading by three, he was looking for a
solid round to close out the win. But on Sunday the game became
hard again. Els three-putted the 3rd hole from 18 feet for a
bogey. By the time he bogeyed again at the 8th, he had fallen
behind Heinen, who had blazed to a 30 on the front nine. Els was
driving erratically, and on the 11th hole he three-putted for
bogey, this time from 45 feet. When he sprayed his tee shot
right on the 12th, missed the green and chipped 20 feet past the
hole, Els looked beaten. "My head was kind of rolling at that
time," Els says. But it didn't roll off, and the crucial par
putt rolled in.
As long as Els can keep that head firmly atop his broad
shoulders, his American journey should be a case of manifest
destiny. His greatest menace appears to be an ambivalence toward
the demands of success and fame. "A lot of people want your
attention, and a lot of people want you to do things," Els says.
"And I'm not that kind of person."
Then again, according to Wehmeyer, Els is precisely the kind of
easygoing person who will stay cool and centered in the
spotlight. "He says he hates the attention, but then he handles
it so well," she says. "Yes, it makes him uncomfortable, but he
misses it when it's not there. Don't worry, Ernie will never
back off because of fame. He is doing exactly what he wants to
Els admits as much. "I think I've got two or three years, if I
really play well, to get to Number 1," he says. "I don't think
you should see it as negative to be Number 1 and have all that
attention. That's why you want to be there. That's the sort of
thing you've got to face in life now. Especially in America."